Santa Fe City Council votes to decriminalize pot possession

By Daniel J. Chacón

Santa Fe made history Wednesday by becoming the first city in New Mexico to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Hoping to avoid the costs of taking the issue before voters and the uncertainty of the question even making the November general election ballot, the City Council voted 5-4 to adopt a citizen initiative outright.

“I don’t think that by supporting this there’s going to be many more potheads,” said City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez. He voted in favor of adopting the ordinance, which calls for making possession of an ounce or less of marijuana and marijuana-associated paraphernalia civil infractions punishable by a fine of no more than $25.

Dominguez said he was leaning toward putting the question before voters, calling the ability to vote the most democratic process. But he said he’s had the “unpleasant experience” of working in corrections and seeing the negative effects it can have on “really good people.”

“The real reason I’m in support of this is because I’ve seen what incarceration does on a firsthand level,” he said.

The other councilors who voted to adopt the ordinance were Patti Bushee, Peter Ives, Signe Lindell and Joseph Maestas. Mayor Javier Gonzales and councilors Bill Dimas, Ron Trujillo and Chris Rivera cast the dissenting votes.

The ordinance, which goes into effect five days after it’s published, also would make possession of small amounts of marijuana “a lowest law enforcement priority” for Santa Fe police.

Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said she had “mixed emotions” about the council’s decision. Drug Policy Action, the advocacy and political arm of Drug Policy Alliance, and ProgressNow New Mexico led the effort to gather petition signatures with the intent of putting the question before voters in November.

“I think there are going to be a lot of disappointed voters who really wanted to show their direct support,” Kaltenbach said. “That’s the reason that we went out to gather all the signatures. One vote, one voice really is probably the most pure, direct form of democracy, and unfortunately, those voters won’t have a chance to have their voice heard directly because of this evening.”

Still, Kaltenbach said, “the people won tonight no matter what.”

“I’m disappointed the voters won’t have a voice, but I’m ecstatic that we made history tonight by changing our laws in our city,” she said.

Dimas, whose daughter died of a drug overdose at age 32, urged his colleagues to put the question before voters.

“I as a citizen can tell you that I support it going to the voters because it gives me an opportunity to decide if I want to vote for it or against it based on what’s happened in my personal life,” he said.

“It should go to the voters. That’s what people signed the petitions for,” he said.

Gonzales also tried to make the case for putting the question before voters. He said the council has known since at least June that there was an initiative to reduce the penalties for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. He said the council had opportunities to adopt it since then but didn’t.

“We actually allowed for the petitioners to go out and through hundreds of hours of civic engagement get 11,000 signatures of people who are asking this council to put this measure to the vote,” Gonzales said.

“They’ve asked for the vote. They should have the vote,” he said.

But when it would go to a vote was up in the air.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Dianna Duran raised concerns about putting the two-part question on the November ballot, saying it could’ve been difficult to accommodate on an already crowded ballot. Elections officials also faced a tight timeline to resolve what the city attorney on Tuesday called “significant logistical details,” since Duran has until Sept. 9 to certify the ballots in all of New Mexico’s 33 counties.

The estimated $80,000 cost associated with putting the question on the November ballot was a major sticking point for some councilors, though City Clerk Yolanda Vigil said the cost could be lower.

“I’m concerned about the fiscal impact,” Maestas said.

A special election not held in conjunction with the November election was estimated to cost between $90,000 and $100,000.

“Those are just the kind of numbers I don’t like,” Lindell said.

Councilors considered waiting until the next municipal election in March 2016 but struggled with waiting that long to put the question before voters.

Despite adoption of the ordinance, the issue may not be entirely resolved.

Gov. Susana Martinez has expressed opposition and doubt that a municipality could decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana without legislative action.

However, City Attorney Kelley Brennan issued an opinion stating that Santa Fe is within its authority to enact such an ordinance.

“Home Rule municipalities do not need to look to the legislature to act, but only to ensure that the legislature has not placed limits on a municipality’s power,” she wrote.

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